My Man Godfrey

The 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey is witty, but I’m not so sure about this romance.

William Powell stars as Godfrey, a down-on-his-luck fellow who’s fallen financially and is living on a city ash heap, which reminded me of the ash land in The Great Gatsby. One night socialite Irene, played by Carole Lombard, rescues Godfrey from the ash heap. To help Irene win her bizarre scavenger hunt, Godfrey agrees to allow her to use him as a “forgotten man,” the last item on her team’s list. Her exclusive club has its members who’re dripping in diamonds running about the city collecting goats, bird cages, flower carts, Japanese goldfish and a “forgotten men.” These crash elites treat people as objects and Godfrey plays along out of curiosity to see how horrible these people can be.

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Though ditzy, Irene isn’t half bad. She soon decides to hire Godfrey as the family butler. She doesn’t realize how she’s still objectifying him but there’s something wise about Godfrey. He realizes what’s going on and how clueless Irene is, but he’s willing to play along because he doesn’t romanticize poverty to the degree that he thinks sleeping in the ash heap is more honorable than sleeping in a clean, heated bedroom.

From day one the family’s clever maid sets Godfrey straight. The family is bananas. The mother is a souse, ruled by her caprice. The oldest daughter is a mean snob who plots to get Godrey arrested. A human bank, the father is ineffective, long suffering, tuned out like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Finally, the mother’s protege is a human eating machine who’s willing to be a toy for the mother in exchange for a free ride.

Irene becomes smitten with Godfrey and won’t take no for an answer no matter how much Godfrey tries to set boundaries. Though all the other butlers were quickly fired or quit in a huff, Godfrey hangs in there. Yet a house party, Godfrey’s true identity is revealed when one of his former Harvard classmates recognizes him. His nemesis Irene’s sister Caroline is intrigued and starts to follow Godfrey around town.

I can’t say My Man Godfrey will become a favorite. While I appreciated the insights and depiction of people who fell in status during the Depression, the two sisters were immature and catty. That’s no surprise because the mother also was an overgrown child.

Screwball comedies are supposed to be silly and over the top. In this regard, the film is a success. I am glad I saw it, but the end didn’t win me over. Perhaps if Irene changed more, perhaps I’d think better.

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Gold Diggers of 1933

“We’re in the Money” is just one of the memorable tunes in Gold Diggers of 1933 is a romantic comedy about some dancers whose show gets nixed because the producer couldn’t pay his bills. Next they’re seen shivering in their beds unwilling to get up as it’s easier to starve in bed.

Soon the producer comes to their apartment and hears their talented piano playing neighbor. He convinces Brad, the piano player to write some songs for his new show which will be a smash, if he can just get the funds. Brad, who’s sweet on one of the dancers, turns out to be a rich boy and he finances the show. When the male lead falls sick, Brad must go on and his true identity is revealed, which leads to family interference in his love life. In response to his brother’s meddling the other dancers pretend to be money grubbers to teach him a lesson.

It’s a light-hearted romp, that entertains, unless you judge past eras for their gender stereotypes. The most surprising part of the film was the closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man” a tribute to the men who served in WWI and whose lives were ruined as a result.

With William Powell of The Thin Man movies, I was looking for a suave, witty detective story. If The Thin Man is an A movie, The Kennel Murder is a C+.

The film opens with detective Philo Vance, played by Powell, at a dog show where his dog loses. At the show there’s a rich man, Archer Coe, with plenty of enemies. His niece resents his control over her, his cook, who’s Chinese, resents his Coe for selling his collection of ancient Chinese porcelain, his secretary resents Coe for forbidding him to marry his niece, his lover’s been cut off after a jealous Coe finds her with an Italian lover, who was supposed to buy the Chinese porcelain collection . . . . No one seems to like Coe.

When Coe is found dead in his bedroom with the door locked, the inept, comical police sergeant assumes it’s a suicide. But Vance doesn’t buy it. When Coe’s hapless brother’s found murdered, murder is suspected, but who did it?

Powell is clever and stands head and shoulders above the police force who all provide comic relief. It’s an entertaining movie but not as witty as The Thin Man films and better 1930s films. With Myrna Loy, Powell had an equal to engage with; here he was the lonely brain. The other characters were stereotypes; and there are some flaws in the murder.

So I’ve seen better films and wouldn’t recommend this strongly, but The Kennel Murder did entertain.

The Kennel Murder

The Pearls of the Crown

Sacha guitry pearls

Sacha Guitry as a writer tracking down rare pearls

Sacha Guitry created another light-hearted film with The Pearls of the Crown. In this movie, which Guitry wrote, directed and stars in, a French writer, a man works for the Pope and an English royal assistant, search for three, rare, matching pearls that have gone missing since the 16th century. As the three men hunt down these pearls, they discover the truth in the lives of historical figures like King Henry VIII. Throughout the film, the audience is treated to wry humour. Here Guitry, who’s something of a French Noel Coward, plays for roles: two kings, a writer and one more character.

The film is charming and you’ll even learn a bit about history. Good when you’re looking for light entertainment and don’t mind subtitles.

The Only Son

An Only Son

An Only Son

My guess is Ozu can’t make a bad film. Though I’ve only seen a handful, from what I’ve read and seen, I think it’s impossible.

The Only Son (1936) tells the story of a poor boy who’s widowed mother doesn’t have enough money to send him to middle school. Only 9 boys in the class are planning to go. When the boy’s teacher obliquely urges her to see that her gifted son goes on to school, she finds a way to do so.

The film then jumps ahead to the boy’s adulthood. After college, he’s living in Tokyo. His mother surprises him with a visit and he surprises her with a wife and baby he never mentioned. In Japan this is quite a disgrace. Why wouldn’t you tell your mother you’d married? It makes her look like a bad mother. (And in the US it’s also not done.) She accepts her new daughter-in-law and dotes on her grandson.

Though he tries to hide it, his life has not worked out. He lives on the outskirts of pre-WWII Tokyo in a desolate area beside a factory. He’s scraping by teaching math classes at night. He can’t get a good job and has to ask his boss for an advance so he’ll have money to make sure his mother has a good trip.

What was all her deprivation for? Her son’s not even happy. The promise that education will lead to a good job, to security or prosperity, has not proven true. She brings this up to her son as they sit in a field of dried grass. He’s frustrated by the situation himself. He can’t and doesn’t argue with her. He has little hope and little motivation to succeed.

Yet a heroic act for a neighbor shows the mother that all isn’t lost and that her son, while he may never be rich, has a stellar character.

The film is stark and beautiful. The environment captures the characters’ plights. While the ending isn’t one you’d find in a fairytale, it’s authentic and powerful.

Passing Fancy

Kahichi and son Tomio

Kahichi and son Tomio

Yasujiro Ozu’s Passing Fancy (1933) takes us into the shitamachi, i.e. tenement neighborhood of Tokyo where factory worker Kihachi, a widower, lives with his young son, Tomio. The film opens with Kihachi watching a storyteller with his neighbors. The scene with Kihachi battling a fly are comedic. After the show, Kihachi meets Harue, a young, pretty woman who’s just last her job and has no where to go.

Not only is Kihachi moved, he’s smitten. His young neighbor Jiro kids Kihachi urging him not to get his hopes up. A lazy, uneducated jokester, Kihachi’s amusing, but you know he’ll never get ahead. Moreover, you know he’ll never get the girl. His hopes die hard. He’s unaware of Harue’s soft spot for Jiro, who rebuffs her advances. Still her continued love for Jiro means she’s never going to fall for Kihachi.

Tomio’s a good student and impudent son. His classmates taunt him and in turn, Tomio puts down his father for his illiteracy and lazy ways. The argument escalates, but Kihachi realizes his son’s situation and gives a lot of money to spend as he wishes. He hopes the windfall will alleviate the pains of their poverty however briefly. But Tomio, who’s about 9 or 10, gorges himself on sweets, which results in a critical illness. With Tomio in the hospital Kihachi, Jiro, Harue and another neighbor are brought together.

It's never explained why Tomio's got the eye patch

It’s never explained why Tomio’s got the eye patch

The silent film moves slowly by modern standards, but is full of touching scenes that will reward patient viewers. Ozu’s characters are engaging. I particularly liked that the boy was sometimes the model son, who has to make his drunken father get up for work, sometimes a victim and sometimes a brat. It isn’t often that children are so multi-dimensional in film.

Here’s an essay on the film on Criterion Collection.

Made for Each Other

made for each other

With Carole Lombard and Jimmy Stewart, Made for Each other has been described as the “serious side of the screwball comedy.” I saw it on YouTube for the MOOC I’m taking on Marriage and Movies. We’re only in week 2 so if you’re interested, sigh up.

Young attorney, John Mason (Stewart) meets Jane (Lombard) by chance on a business trip to Boston. He surprises everyone by returning to New York with a new wife. Most surprised of all is his mother, with whom he lives (which wasn’t as unusual as it is today). Both the mother and John’s boss, a crotchety, hard of hearing lawyer played by Charles Coburn (later known as Uncle Joe on Pettycoat Junction) think such haste is insanity, yet both Jane and John are so sensible and good looking that the audience buys their union. Surely, love will prevail. Or will it

The only problem I had with the film was the continual use of “the baby” rather than the child’s name, Johnny. It’s a bit of a deus ex machina ending, but I bought it.

Yet as the first years of their marriage progress, life hits them hard. John is passed over at work and money is tight, extremely tight after their baby is born. John’s mother and wife bicker as they share a small apartment. Everyone seems to be pulled to the brink and despite their sensibility and earnest attempts to persevere, the marriage is in jeopardy.

Made for Each Other held my interest because it was so original, so different from the screwball fare of couples meeting and bickering until they make it to the altar. It’s a rare look at what happens after people say, “I do.”

La Grande Illusion

b3_d__0_GrandIllusionI knew that Phil Jackson would show Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion  (1937) to his players before every season, but I wasn’t sure why. (I’m still uncertain as to what he wanted his team to learn, though the film has plenty of insights.)

I didn’t know what to expect. The DVD package promised a war film, which I’m never in the mood for, but if 3:10 to Yuma was good, perhaps this would be too. Starring Jean Gabin (whom I saw in Touchez Pas au Grisbi) La Grande Illusion tells the story of French POWs in World War I. Of course, if the main characters are stuck in prison, the film’s objective must be to get them out, n’est pas? Bien sur.

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The three central characters are Gabin’s working class Maréchal, Pierre Fresnay’s blue blooded Capt. de Boeldieu and Marcel Dalio’s Lt. Rosenthal. When Maréchal is captured he’s put in a cell with de Boeldieu and Rosenthal, who shares the delicacies his family send him from France with all his comrades. Maréchal soon learns that the men have been digging a tunnel to get out. While other escapees get caught and shot, these men’s plan is thwarted as they are all moved to another prison camp just before they plan to use the tunnel.

de Boeldieu et von Rauffenstein

de Boeldieu et von Rauffenstein

The three are transferred and try to escape repeatedly till they’re sent to Capt. von Rauffenstein’s camp. Played by Eric von Stroheim, von Rauffenstein is a compelling character. Throughout the film, von Rauffenstein wears a full body cast and wears white gloves to hide his burned hands. He lives in a gothic chapel that he’s oddly decorated and made into an apartment. He prides himself on running a civilized prisoner of war camp for officers, whom he treats almost like guests.

Von Rauffenstein most connects with de Boeldieu as their family trees are most on par. While de Boedleu has come to see that the old social order is dying, von Rauffenstein’s blind to that. He also can’t fathom how de Boedieu can seen any value in the working class or nouveau riche, that’s his downfall.

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From critic Peter Cowie’s essay on the Criterion Collection website:

Made just three years before World War II, it gazes back to a different era, and to a war, in the words of the director, “based on fair play, a war without atom bombs or torture.” Hitler had not appeared. “Nor,” says Renoir, “had the Nazis, who almost succeeded in making people forget that the Germans are also human beings.”

The film is simple, but compelling with fascinating characters I won’t soon forget. It unfolds effortlessly and haunts me days after I’ve seen it. I can’t wait to watch it again, next time with the commentary.

The 39 Steps

39 steps

This week’s old movie was Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935), which reminded me a lot of Ministry of Fear and North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film. Still 39 Steps is compelling and moves quickly as it shows a man who mistakenly gets caught up in spy intrigue and is innocent of a murder for which the police suspect him. I’d never seen the leading man, Robert Donat, but liked him in the role of Mr. Hanney. Dona’s charming and attractive, but not an Adonis so he can come off as an everyman.

After a strange, beautiful woman asks to go back with him to his apartment. Once inside she hides in the shadows, fearful of being seen. Men are following her. She claims to be a spy who must protect military secrets. She’s a mercenary and her tale is hard to believe. Hanney really doesn’t put much faith into her story, but he doesn’t kick her out either. When she comes to him in the middle of the night with a map and a knife stuck in her back, Hanney’s convinced. Knowing he’ll be suspected of murder he flees all the while having to elude the men who killed the beautiful spy.

Like many Hitchcock films it’s the tale of an innocent man, wrongly accused. Roger Ebert told a film class I took with him that as a boy, Hitchcock’s father wrongly suspected the young genius of some childish misdemeanor and punished him by sending him to the local police where an officer locked him up saying, “This is what we do with naughty boys.” Hitchcock believed he was 4 or 5 at the time.

The 39 Steps moves briskly in part to keep the audience from pondering unexplained questions like how did the killers get into Hanney’s apartment so quietly and why didn’t they do something to Hanney since they saw the pair enter the building.  The film delights with wit and light comedy sprinkled in with the suspense and danger.

As usual, the Criterion Collection offers a trenchant essay on the film. Well worth reading.

The Story of a Cheat

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The Story of a Cheat (1936) is a delightful comedy by Sacha Guitry, whom I’d never have discovered if it weren’t for my New Year’s resolution to watch old movies. In T he Story of a Cheat, Guitry plays a suave man who falls into one incident after another where he winds up stealing or conning someone. As a boy, he stole some money from his father’s shop. He got caught and was forbidden to eat the mushrooms served for dinner. As all his relations get poisoned, he lucked out and thus the confusion over whether honesty is the best policy ensues. No matter how bad things get, there’s always some silver lining and this hero winds up doing alright – as long as he’s dishonest. Whenever he’s honest, he gets in trouble.

boy cheat

It’s a fun, entertaining French film told almost entirely through flashback and voice over. Big no-no’s for movies, but this does work. The Criterion Collection provides a nice essay on Guitry’s career.